My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Follow-Up Questions About Developmental Editors Mailbox

What if I've already done the proofreading? Peer review or paid content editing? Did I trade developmental editing for massage or "massage"? What do I think of Fictionary?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer questions about once a week. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Yes, enough follow-up questions and (clearly) I will do another post.] 

All of our questions today come as a follow up to Thursday's Mailbox "I Can't Afford a Development Editor"

Daniel asks:

I worked really hard on my story and I did a revision to clean up the parts that didn't make sense and then I spent nearly a thousand dollars on what you have called line editing and copyediting. As far as I'm concerned, I'm done. Now you're telling me the first thing I should have done is some totally different kind of editing plus some sensitivity read? What if I thought about my story before I wrote it and it's exactly what I want it to be? I would have to change everything and then do all the other editing again, right? Where do you get off?

My reply:

Usually in my bedroom. Some music on. A little bit of literotica on the iPad though sometimes there's an enthusiastic partner––

Oh you didn't actually mean...

Daniel, next to me I have a brand-new, newly purchased Lumen 4000 Sunshine Blower with an anal attachment. I can kick this bad boy up to maximum and blow 23 OCTILLION candlepower, or literally the brightness of actual sunshine, straight up your ass, and tell you that surely your story doesn't need developmental editing because you thought about it a lot.

But I'm guessing you'd rather I didn't. And I'm really, really sorry. The graveyard of unpublished works is filled with millions of drafts of folks who thought they were also the exception.

Think about all the movies or shows or books you ever hated. Did you hate them because of the camera work? Did you hate them because of the editing cuts? Did you hate them because you caught a few typos? You probably didn't. You probably hated them because they were boring. Because they had characters who were not compelling. A "plot twist" was so out of left field and unforeseeable that it just felt like a random drop of bullshit with no hints that it was coming––or so overtelegraphed that it was painfully obvious 100 pages before it happened. Because the stakes were too low or the efforts of the protagonist didn't matter because "the cavalry arrived" or something deus ex machina that made their efforts meaningless and they could have just gone for a drink on the first page and nothing would have changed. The plot got too convoluted....or maybe it was just too simple. The intellectual pretension was palpable. The moral lesson was....well, a moral LESSON. It was contrived. The exposition was ham-handed. Maybe they forced women or POC into stereotypical roles.

These are big problems. And no copy editor or line editor is going to be able to help you fix that stuff. (A line editor might be able to help you with some specific moments of a portrayal.) And you can absolutely have incredible technical elements in a story that is falling on its face in so many other regards from character development to rushed pacing to dreadful portrayals of folks typically struggling for some decent representation.

*presses lips together and stays conspicuously silent*
Image description: GIF of Game of Thrones shot where Daenerys appears to have wings unfurl.
But it is actually a dragon taking flight behind her. 
What you need is someone who is able to identify what's not working in a story, not what's not working in a sentence or a paragraph. These are actually harder things for writers to know need fixing than any misplaced comma. You need someone who doesn't KNOW your character to tell you if they're making sense or not. You need someone who doesn't understand the plot to tell you they're confused. You need someone who isn't in your head to point out that your words aren't doing what you think they are.

I know it sucks to have done the editing out of order. Now you have to face the fact that you're probably going to go through and change all that copyedited stuff. And then you'll have to redo the line editing and copy editing....again. This is part of the reason I try to gently suggest to people who are humping the walls to get proofreading of their first drafts that they really aren't even done writing it yet.

I'm really sorry to be the messenger. And if you don't believe me, give it a shot and see what happens. But I think if you want to get a book deal (or if you're self-publishing, to sell more than a few dozen copies to your family and friends), you probably need to think about that tough layer of content editing.

Anonymous asks:

You say that you can get good editing help through peer review, but you also seem to think a writer should pay for a professional content edit. I'm a bit confused. Which is it?

My reply:


I hate to be all "Only you know the roads down which you must travel, Grasshopper," with you, but I don't know what your goals are with your writing. I don't know what you're trying to accomplish. I don't know how good you want this book you're writing to be. Are you looking to get it published and move right on with the sequel? Do you just want money and readers? Is "good enough" going to be good enough for you? Or are you trying to leave an indelible mark on the world of literature by writing something that won't soon be forgotten?

I know a number of authors who make VERY comfortable livings writing what I call "popcorn books." They're fun and have a very light crunch, but they're not very nutritious. (Usually one reads them once and moves on.) Usually we're talking about fan service books, a series of some beloved characters or group of characters, and they come out with a new one somewhere between every nine months to a year and change. For any of these folks, the two grand or so that a professional editor might cost to do a content edit would cut into their bottom line.

If you're writing a popcorn book, you probably don't need more than some thorough peer review from a trusted group of feedback-givers. Get the glaring errors out, smooth over the roughest edges, publish and move on. No one is going to care if the 16th part of The Misliglemonth Mystery Series (the intrepid––and smutty––adventures of a half-succubus demon hunter named Misliglemonth)  involved a chapter that dragged. They're too busy rereading chapter four on their iPads in their bedrooms with some music on....erm.....ahem.

Or....is this the book? Is this the one you want to be special? Maybe your first book. Maybe the one you've held in your heart since childhood. The one you want to get RIGHT! In that case an investment in your writing might be well worth it (even if you have to barter or something or scrimp and save). I wouldn't start professional with your second draft unless you have twenty thousand dollars to burn, but after you've given it everything you can and maybe some peer review, and it is as glittering as you can make it, hand it off to a professional. These people know what they're doing. They are basically always also writers. They have degrees and experience. They have been giving feedback like this for years. And some of it might feel nitpicky, but you will come out knowing how to make your book the best it can be.

Only you know which nostril is stuffed up, Grasshopper.  Wait...what?

Charlie asks:

You said you traded content editing for massage. Did you mean massage or "massage."

My reply: 

I can't believe you write in to a second rate blog about writing to try to be titillated. Are you going to ask me if my refrigerator is running next?

Listen, Chaz, I'm firmly in the "Sex work is real work" camp, so you wouldn't be able to shame me either way. I want sex work legalized so that sex workers can get labor rights, so that traffickers aren't harder to find and prosecute because no one will report them for fear of legal repercussions, and so it is roughly a gajillion times safer (both health and violence-wise) for the sex workers themselves. Autonomy, dignity, fair labor practices, and access to evidence-based care are all reduced (not increased) by stigmatizing sex work and that includes giggling at the clients. You know what isn't reduced? The amount of sex work that goes on. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.

But in this case, I meant the kind that didn't end in an orgasm.

David asks:

I've just read your interesting response to Emma's query about developmental editing.

I can't afford a human, but I'm looking at Fictionary (the story-editing tool, not the game). Their subscription of $20 a month might be feasible, but I'm wondering how useful it's likely to be. (My MS will be around 200k words.)

Do you have any views on this (or similar) software?

My reply:

Short answer, David, I would probably not bother, but $20 a month is not that bad if it really helps you and not too much up front to be a risky venture. They even have a free trial. Just don't expect this (or any other program) to really do much heavy lifting.

It seems like what Fictionary does could be easily reproduced by asking yourself a few key questions about every chapter and character as you go along. However if you swear by organizational tools like Scrivener, you might check it out. It seems to have some line editing capabilities, to point out passive constructions, too many linking verbs, modals, pronouns, evaluate your vocabulary level, etc... It claims to be able to show you how your arcs are working in the overall story, but it also seems to ask you how certain plot and character lines are progressing, so I think you could be doing the same thing just by checking in with yourself every chapter.

Dubious Chris is dubious.

I had to do some research to try to answer this question, and I found a few red flags. I didn't plumb the depths of Google, but I took a cursory look around, and what I saw was that Fictionary had very few reviews and the only few I could find were either pretty clearly shills or were kind of like "Six tools to help your writing" type content blogs. I don't know if they get kickbacks from the apps they mention, but I think they might....so also shills(?). No shitty reviews. No plain-spoken authors who swear by it. No one who said, "Yeah it's okay, I guess, if that's your thing." Nothing.

Red flag #2: Fictionary makes some pretty lofty claims about what it can do for your writing. Don't get me wrong, we all want to sell ourselves, but being able to process beta reader feedback into exactly how to fix your work or how to change your non-selling-well-enough self-published book to boost your sales sounds like the sort of thing that requires some one-on-one with a tutor, not a computer program.

My problem with this program is the same as my problem with all unmanned programs of this type. The computer doesn't know what you MEANT. It can't possibly see what you're trying to do and help you get there. It is built of algorithms and word scans. It can tell you if you used passive construction, but not if you had a good reason for doing so. It can tell you that your vocabulary level is eighth grade, but not if you're getting the narrative voice right for your character who dropped out of high school. It can tell you that you're using too many modals, but not that you should because right now, your character is contemplating the future. It doesn't know if a complete non-sequitur chapter is a total derailment of the plot, or one of those delightful moments like the invading armada that gets swallowed by a dog in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's clinical. You can have a perfectly arched story with absolutely no humanity or an incredibly poignant vignette in which the only central conflict was getting up to get a glass of water.

It's like the literary version of ironically using an idiom and then running the text through Google Translate.

I know it's really frustrating to tell a writer who really wants to make it that what they probably need is another five years or more of reading voraciously. That this is what's really going to give them the sense of pacing and character. It's frustrating to young writers who think they are just a few punchy verbs away from a writing career, that they need more practice. But that's how these programs make their money. They improve things a little (they aren't useless), but then you still end up needing a lot of the direct help anyway. They're not as useful as years of grounding in reading or a human who's been doing this for fifteen years.

It is likely that Fictionary would be really good at helping you improve your second or third draft, but would not be able to take the place of a professional development editor (or really good peer review) further down the line.

On the other hand, $20 is pretty cheap. I can't even watch an IMAX Star Wars movie in the city for that little anymore. And it probably wouldn't take you more than a month to figure out if it were genuinely helping you craft a story or if were mostly just one of those subscription services where you are expected to sign up, be enthusiastic about for a few days and then "forget" to cancel.

Heck you could even sign up for the trial, run your second draft through it to get some revision suggestions and then cancel before the trial period is over. But don't tell them I told you so.


  1. (This is David, despite Blogger calling me "Anonymous")

    Many thanks for this, Chris. Google gave you the same as it gave me (surprise). I found the lack of Fictionary reviews, er, disturbing. One of those "reviews" is from another software package I use, which claims to be more than a grammar checker, but still flags many "errors" because it reacts to trigger words without considering the context. (And yes, I think all the "reviews" were shills.)

    On the plus side, my main beta reader is a diamond. She's a friend (yeah, Red Flag, but she's not afraid to tell me I'm stupid, or that this character wouldn't do/say that), a voracious reader of fiction and non-fiction. She's not a professional writer (yet - she's crafting a biography of the father of modern genetics, Dolly the Sheep and all that), but she has a First Class Honours degree in English Lit from Cambridge Uni. Her input - sometimes kind, sometimes brutal - has helped me shape something I'm starting to feel happy with. When I look back, I expect I'll value her input far more than any software package.

    As I plough through this edit (hopefully the last or thereabouts), I'm looking at each scene and asking what it's doing for character and/or plot development. Already I've excised huge chunks that add nothing.

    This process can also put the text into the format Fictionary wants without too much aggravation. So I'm thinking I'll take the recommendation in your final paragraph and see what this "amazing" program makes of it. (I might even drop you a follow-up email giving my reactions. If they're printable.)

    Many thanks again!

    1. I'm glad this has come around again because I'd forgotten about it. I took Fictionary on a two-week trial and decided not to proceed with it. It's not an editor. It's a storage facility for answers to the questions you should be asking. No recommendations emerge from your recording efforts. I figured I'm getting all this (and more) from the wide-ranging Excel spreadsheet on which I record statistics and answers to Those Questions.

      Fictionary wants to know about entry and exit hooks, details concerning the setting and characters' motivations and reactions. But it does nothing with that information. So I'll stick with my beautiful spreadsheet, thanks.